On Monday the press, the diplomatic corps, hundreds of young volunteers and the president were present on the Blue House lawn to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of World Friends Korea.
While I was aware of Korea having a volunteer program inspired by the American Peace Corps, I hadn't realized that volunteers had been dispatched overseas by agencies like the Korea Overseas Volunteers (KOV) Program and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) since 1990 - only nine years after the Peace Corps left Korea. The number of volunteers sent overseas each year has grown quite a bit since then:
In 2009 the Korean government unified the overseas volunteer programs run by several different government ministries under the umbrella of "World Friends Korea." This was done with the aim of enhancing the effectiveness of the separate volunteer programs, while at the same time allowing Korea to project a coherent image of itself through its overseas volunteer programs. Korea’s Presidential Council on Nation Branding recently announced that, in order to expand its effectiveness and reach, WFK would be expanded to include private sector volunteer programs. And so the aim of the ceremony held on Monday was to welcome new members from the private sector and share Korea's vision for the future of WFK, which is many ways is to increase Korea's presence on the world stage through the activities of its volunteers and aid workers.
In many ways, Korea is an ideal candidate for these kinds of activities, considering its rapid growth from a poor, agricultural society scarred by war to first world economy (and G20 host) in less than 50 years. But though overseas volunteering may be relatively recent, sharing the lessons learned through its economic growth is not. In my research looking through old Korea Times, I've come across stories from the 1970s about poorer countries sending students or technicians to Korea to learn from its experience.
That mention of the G20 wasn't tossed in randomly either - several mentions were made of the conference, and it's clearly being held up as a benchmark of progress ("the only country in Asia to host a G20 conference"). A book handed out as we got on the bus to leave was titled "G20 Generation," and featured lengthy profiles of several young Koreans making waves around the world today. By the time we'd left, we'd already heard the stories of several volunteers, many of them university students, from throughout Korea. Young people from places like Pohang, Chuncheon, and Daejeon had been to, or would soon be sent to, places like Egypt, Vietnam, Paraguay, and Ethiopia.
Now, the reason I and several other bloggers were brought in to take part in all of this was as a trial run to see just how useful English language bloggers might be in getting the message out, so to speak. Rob's post has already gotten good feedback from the powers that be, and I'd tend to think they could use all this kind of publicity they could get. I mean, really - compare this Yonhap article to Rob's post. It's not too hard to see which one is more engaging.
Entering the Blue House grounds was like lining up to board a plane (but much faster going through the metal detectors). Soon after we arrived, we found ourselves surrounded by dozens and then hundreds of multi-coloured (t-shirt-wise) volunteers, as this photo by Michael Hurt reveals (all of the photos in this post were taken by Mike):
Also present were government bigwigs and foreign diplomats, and at a later point, after the speeches, the members of the diplomatic corps were encouraged to mingle with the volunteers, especially those who had (or who might one day) spent time in their countries.
After a documentary (in English, of course!) explaining the aims of World Friends Korea and showing the work of volunteers in Ethiopia and Bangladesh, the president took the stage.
Humbleness seemed to be a theme of the speech, as he apologized for the hot weather and to the representatives of the embassies of countries he'd recently visited for all the work they had to do to prepare for his visits. He also encouraged the volunteers to serve others in a spirit of humbleness, bringing up the aid Korea had received in the past.
Up next was Uzbekistan's ambassador, whose lengthy posting to Korea was made clear when he gave a speech in Korean (eliciting awe from the audience) touching on how countries could benefit from emulating Korea's growth model.
Park Sang-won, an actor and goodwill ambassador for World Vision since 1994, spoke to the volunteers about his past experiences, which included time spent in India after the Indian Ocean Tsunami. At that time he said he felt kind of jealous at that time because he saw so many volunteers from other countries but hardly any from Korea, and was heartened to see so many volunteers standing before him.
He then introduced and complimented two former volunteers, who had served in Vietnam and Kenya, and another who was soon to set off for Paraguay, (which she noted is like Korea was in the 1960s and 70s).
This was followed by a surprise guest speaker (or at least, a previously unannounced speaker), US Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, who opened by saying that seeing all of the volunteers reminded her of when she first came to Korea 36 years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer (where she taught English in a middle school).
She finished with three main points, one being that volunteers would be sharing their skills and hard work with people who really needed it; that they would be ambassadors for Korea (and urged them to keep this in mind and be good ambassadors); and pointed out that when they came back to Korea, they could become an ambassador for the country they had visited.
To be sure, this point hasn't been lost on some, including a Jeju board of education head who wrote an op-ed 2 months ago re-telling Stephens' story and then suggesting that the 400 foreign teachers living in Jeju should be viewed as potential promoters of Jeju.
After the speeches ended, it was time to mingle. The volunteers and diplomatic corps were encouraged to mingle while a long line formed to greet the president and first lady (and I think he spend around an hour greeting people). Below is a group of volunteers posing with KTO head Lee Charm.
More volunteers posing in front of the banner unveiled at the end of the ceremony.
Below is perhaps the most intrepid group I saw that day - elementary school-aged journalists:
(Couldn't help noticing the girl on the right has a Sony P-93, a model I had years ago)
Even though they were a pretty small group, they could be seen everywhere, and one pair even fearlessly approached me and asked me in English why I was attending ("The same reason you are!"), asking how many visitors my blog gets a month, and otherwise being pretty impressive little journalists.
You can't outdraw them...
Our path on the way out took us past the Blue House, and security obviously relented and let Mike take a few photos. The view was actually more impressive than the photo lets on - just one of many such views to be seen within the grounds, what with its gardens, streams and lawns.